France: Chirac facing defeat?

Mobilisations against the Raffarin government merge with opposition to the European constitution.

On Thursday 10 March more than one million people took to the streets of France demanding better wages and battling against a longer working week. Private-sector workers joined with their colleagues in the public sector, veterans of many demonstrations joined with young workers and school students on their first demonstration. This was the fifth national day of action since the beginning of 2005 and the most important since the spring of 2003 and the big battles against the pension ‘reform’ of the right-wing government headed by prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. According to the trade unions, the turnout on the 150 demonstrations across France doubled in comparison with the previous national day of action on 5 February, a Saturday. This impressive show of working-class force has put the French establishment and right-wing government on the back foot.

The Raffarin government, guided by the strategists of the employers’ federation, Medef, and president of the republic, Jacques Chirac, thought it had broken the back of workers’ resistance in the spring of 2003. Then, the failure of the trade unions to organise a general strike allowed for the pension reform to be implemented. The government continued with the bosses’ offensive, semi-privatising electricity and gas, attacking social services and education. Post and SNCF, the national railway company, have been reorganised to prepare the way for privatisation. On 8 February the government smashed the 35-hour week, in reality, authorising the right of bosses to make workers work longer without paying for all the hours worked over 35.

There is great anger at the attempts of the bosses to introduce longer working hours. But many workers have not forgotten the real experience of the introduction of the 35-hour week by the last ‘plural left’ government – a coalition of social democrats, ‘communists’, greens and independents – when it was used to introduce savage ‘flexibility’ in the private sector. At the Citroën car factory in Seine-Saint-Denis production went up to 6,000 cars in a four-day period from the same amount in a five-day period.

Attempts by employers to lengthen the working week amount to a further cut in the real wages of private-sector workers. The 5.2 million public-sector workers have suffered the same erosion of their wages. According to the CGT, the second-biggest union federation, earnings in real terms have fallen 5-6% in the last three years. The government offered public-service workers a meagre wage increase of 0.5% from 1 February 2005 and another 0.5% from 1 November.

Raffarin waited three days before responding to the trade union mobilisation of 10 March. Inviting union leaders to restart negotiations on public-sector wages, he declared in his own inimitable style: "Today, to have courage means to reform… Political clarity guides toward the balance between listening and determination… In the next few days I will show, concretely, that I know how to put one and then the other into practice". He called on employers to look at concrete initiatives to start wage negotiations in the private sector.

Antoine Seillière, head of Medef, declared that neither the government nor the employers’ federation has the authority to determine wages in the private sector. He also deplored the government reacting in such a great hurry to pressure from the street.

Raffarin and Chirac have decided to change strategy. They are playing for time and have offered some very limited concessions. They are worried by the ever increasing numbers of public- and private-sector workers taking part in demonstrations, and especially by the growing mood against the European Union (EU) and European constitution. French workers look at the policies of the EU and the French government and draw the conclusion that these are evil twins. The neo-liberal drive to privatise, deregulate and undermine the living and working conditions of millions of workers is equally central to the policies of the French government as it is to the EU.

The CGT calls for a no-vote in the referendum on the European constitution scheduled for 29 May. By doing so it has elevated the referendum into an issue central to the mobilisation of the working class against Raffarin, and added enormous pressure on the pro-constitution parties in the government and opposition. With the next national election about two years away, the referendum on the European constitution will be the first opportunity to hammer the present government.

Public support for the European constitution has been dropping steadily in France. It is now only ten weeks before the vote and support has dropped to 56%, ten percentage points lower than three months ago. One opinion poll published in Le Parisien on 18 March put support for the constitution at 49%, with 51% against, and 53% of voters undecided. Another opinion poll in Le Figaro showed 52% of those who are certain to vote against the treaty. This is the first time that the no camp leads the polls, and will have a lot of French and European leaders choking on their croissants.

The right wing is split over the issue with high profile figures, such as former interior minister Charles Pasqua, speaking out against: "This treaty is the founding act of the ‘New Europe’ dear to Donald Rumsfeld, subordinate to the financial markets, shaped in the Atlantacist mould with which Turkey’s accession conforms exactly, and integrated de facto in the ‘New World Order’."

The PS (Parti Socialiste) organised an internal referendum to decide the position of the party. PS leader, François Hollande, campaigned for a yes and won. His main opponent was former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, generally regarded as number two in the party. The no camp still got 42%. It does not mean that the internal debate is over. New opinion polls suggest that, if the vote was re-run today, the no camp would win 59%. Fabius and other PS leaders continue to campaign for a no vote, adding weight to their ambition to lead the PS in the 2007 elections. The internal strive is ferocious and a future internal regroupment or fracture cannot be excluded. Henri Emmanuelli, leader of Nouveau Monde, one of the minority groupings inside the PS and against the constitution, compared PS members who support the European constitution with the socialists who voted to grant full powers to the Vichy collaborationist regime of marshal Henri Pétain in 1940.

Referendum fever is reaching such heights that Chirac spoke out publicly against the Bolkenstein directive on services. He said it was "unacceptable" and that it "should be picked apart". Allegedly, he also asked the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barosso, "to keep better control over his commissioners". Recently, different European commissioners have upset the French media because of their neo-liberal frankness. Danuta Hübner, commissioner for regional policies, declared that "rather than putting an end to delocalisation the EU would have to encourage it inside Europe". Nelli Kroes, commissioner for competition, added: "EU subventions for the poor regions of the richer EU states would have to be stopped". Vladimir Spidla, commissioner for social affairs, put the boot in by stating that the "objective is first and foremost flexibility". Peter Mandelson, rewarded by Tony Blair with the post of EU commissioner for trade and commerce, did his bit by reminding member states that "they need to continue to reform their labour markets and the systems of social protection".

The situation in France is on a knife edge for the government and the elite. Raffarin’s strategy is to propose negotiations and try to break the growing unity between public- and private-sector workers. By offering something to the trade union bureaucracy he will try to derail the mobilisations and, at the same time, attempt to safeguard a victory for the yes camp in the European constitution referendum. The workers and youth of France have shown tremendous understanding and relentless energy in their battle against neo-liberalism and capitalism. This defiance has safeguarded France from the worst excesses of neo-liberalism, a situation described by the new finance minister, Thierry Breton, as "the collective refusal of a whole generation… to reform what needs to be reformed and to eliminate waste".

The present movement in France and the possibility of a vote against the European constitution on 29 May can have a profound influence on political developments. It could lead to splits amongst the centre-left and centre-right parties, and to a regroupment of political forces. The working class is, for the moment, held back because it lacks its own genuinely socialist political force. Although many occasions to begin constructing such a new workers’ party have been missed in the past, the present eruptions will create new opportunities for the working class of France and Europe to advance further on the road to socialism.

This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of Socialism Today.

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March 2005